“The pandemic both helped and hindered my business as a new practice owner”
Optometrist and practice owner of Hill Eyecare in Linwood, Scotland, Gemma Hill, shares her experiences of navigating the pandemic as a new business owner and progressing through a rebrand
27 April 2022
The announcement of the first national lockdown as a result of the pandemic in March 2020 was the beginning of an extremely stressful period for me as a new practice owner, having taken over an existing practice in August 2019.
I was new to practice ownership and didn’t have much business experience before purchasing the practice, although I knew it well as I had worked there since my pre-reg. When the pandemic hit and restrictions were put in place, I pretty much assumed that that would be it for the business.
I am lucky enough to have an extremely good relationship with the optometrist I purchased the practice from, who has been a constant support for me since I took over. I spoke to him over the phone shortly before the ‘Stay at home’ message was announced. He reassured me: he told me to stay calm and hold tight. He felt that support for business owners would be announced and this would not be the end for the practice. It was reassuring to hear that from a practice owner with many years’ experience, and he was of course right.
I had been a practice owner for just over six months, and I hadn’t even experienced any minor blips before having to deal with a worldwide pandemic
Following the announcement, I took the decision to put all of my staff on furlough. I ran everything myself and had to adapt the best I could. The changes that were happening were so fast-paced. I was receiving an email almost every other day about a change in process, how optometrists could see patients, etc. It was a steep learning curve, just as I’m sure it was for all business owners.
When support schemes such as furlough, the small business grant and the bounce back loan were announced, they were all areas of business that I didn’t have any experience in, and I had to work out and learn very quickly what applied to me and if it was going to be worth doing.
I felt extremely vulnerable as a new practice owner at the time. If I had owned the business for a number of years, I’m sure I would have been used to dealing with a few ups and downs. But I had been a practice owner for just over six months, and I hadn’t even experienced any minor blips before having to deal with a worldwide pandemic.
Looking back on things, I probably handled it the best that could have hoped for, and I don’t think I would have done anything differently in hindsight. I feel it was a little bit of luck, combined with asking the right people the right questions at the right time, and getting help just when I needed it. Having a peer support network throughout this situation was so important for me and the practice.
When I took over the practice, a rebrand, including a new name and website, were high on the agenda, as was employing a pre-reg. However, these are all expensive things to do. The pandemic both helped and hindered these business plans. It helped me in that it gave me access to the small business grant and the bounce back loan, providing the funds I required to implement the changes that I wanted to make. However, it also made implementing these changes very difficult – while we were able to rebrand online, signage with our new name could not be fitted above the practice for about six months, my pre-reg was stuck in another country unable to start, and equipment purchases were very nerve-racking when testing capacity and sales felt uncertain.
The pandemic has seen consumers shop small and shop local in a bigger way than ever before
For the rebrand of the practice, I instructed a talented graphic designer. This process was all performed via video calls and was not impacted by the pandemic at all. It was a fantastic experience. I told them what the practice was, what was working for it and what I wanted the practice to be: it’s a nice, family-friendly, community involved practice. And the right person went away and created something that made it feel like that. Through the process we came up with the brand and changed the practice name from Forde Opticians to Hill Eyecare.
When embarking on the rebrand, I knew it would be important to make patients aware as early in the process as possible about what was going on. Therefore, we shared our intentions with every patient we spoke to after I took over the practice. This laid down a lot of the groundwork and there wasn’t a shock when the change happened. It also helped patients feel that they were on the journey with us and made them more comfortable with it.
Coinciding with the rebrand, we launched a new website. We knew from the start that we were not going to sell or do online ordering as we are too small of a practice to do that. However, as consumers we all investigate and Google somewhere before we book nowadays, and I wanted to create a website that demonstrated what the practice stood for. It was about giving patients, and potential patients, access to all of the information that they might want to gain about the practice at their own leisure. I also wanted to make the journey for selecting us simple, so creating an online booking system was a must. I never want to phone up anywhere and book anything and, like me, patients want to do this in the easiest way possible. It is there when people need it.
Reflecting on the last two years, a positive to come from the pandemic is that the practice has benefited from a community atmosphere and loyalty to staying local. This has been a message that we have always expressed and spoken to our patients about. However, the pandemic has seen consumers shop small and shop local in a bigger way than ever before. Our patients have seen us as a stable feature in their community that is there to support them when they need it. We have had a lot of new patients during the pandemic and when we ask them why they have chosen to come to us they say it’s because we are local, and that’s lovely to hear.
Despite having a challenging start to practice ownership, the pandemic, while hard, has not changed my mind about anything. I would still choose to become a practice owner all over again as I still feel that is the best way to be an optometrist. It is the best way to have control over what you do, how your day is and how you interact with your patients, which is priceless. It is the best career move I have made.
About the author
Gemma Hill is an optometrist and the practice owner of Hill Eyecare in Linwood, Scotland.
• As told to Emily McCormick.